While Major League Baseball is in day number two of its official offseason, the Cleveland Indians have been hard at work already (presumably) at finding ways to build a winner for 2016 and beyond.
Many questions are already answered with the return of a strong nucleus and a pitching staff that met expectations for the 2015 season. Some of the questions about how the organization surrounds those returning cast members are up in the air and one of the first questions to address will be the status of Ryan Raburn.
The 34-year-old bench player is owed $3 million by the Indians for the coming season, if, and that may be a big IF, the team picks up his option for the 2016 campaign. If they elect to look elsewhere for youth, external options, or financial reasons, the team will pay the ten-year man a $100,000 contract buyout.
There is a case to be made on either side of the fence in regards to bringing Raburn back.
He is a right-handed bat with occasion pop. He is not the power-hitting right-handed stick the lineup needs, but he has been useful in platoon and pinch-hitting opportunities during his time with the club.
He has been around the franchise for three years already, so he is a familiar face in the clubhouse and understands his role on Terry Francona’s club. Francona went out of his way to recruit “Bobby” to the team and it was a surprise to some that he had enough left in the tank to make the team out of Spring Training at the end of March in 2013. He previously had played in Detroit, spending parts of seven seasons at the big league level for the Tigers while serving in a variety of roles, playing every position on the diamond except pitcher, catcher, and shortstop during his time there.
He began to see more regular playing time with the Tigers in 2008, used as a super-utility type of player while logging between 92 and 121 games over four seasons beginning with that 2008 year. But in 2012, he fell apart altogether, hitting just one homer and driving in 12 over 66 games while hitting .171. He spent time back in Triple-A, appearing in 15 games for the Mud Hens in his most minor league action since 2007.
He is the type of player who understands hardship and has seen himself on the brink of losing his MLB career before resurrecting it in Cleveland.
Francona has utilized him heavily against left-handed pitching while previously platooning him in right field with David Murphy. In 2015, the move paid off as he hit .325 against southpaws with all eight of his homers and 25 of his 29 RBI coming in those opportunities. Unfortunately, his splits against righties hurt him receiving additional playing time – he had just three hits in 25 plate appearances (.136 average, .240 on-base percentage, .227 slugging) with a pair of singles and a triple to his credit.
He played more against righties the year before, but his numbers for the whole season were disappointing. He hit .208 versus right-handers and .195 versus left-handers and amassed just four homers, seven doubles, and 22 RBI for the year in 74 games.
His splits were again favorable during his first year with the club, but he was not used by Francona in an exclusive role against righties. In 73 games versus a right-hander, he hit .243 with nine homers and 34 RBI. In 53 games against left-handers, he hit .308 with seven homers and 21 RBI and had appeared to have found the fountain of youth just in time to prevent his career from ending prematurely.
Francona did look to him to come off the bench late in games as a pinch-hitting option with moderate success in 2015. He hit .273 (6-for-22) with a .448 OBP, getting three doubles and a triple with five walks and eight RBI.
The case against keeping Raburn may be a bit more lengthy and therefore much more detrimental to his cause.
The righty will turn 35 less than two weeks into the season. While he previously was able to slot in at places all across the playing field, for the Indians he has played all but 19 2/3 innings in either left field, right field, or at designated hitter. Eighteen of those innings came in his first season with the club, with 17 at second base in two games and one inning pitching. He added an inning at first base in 2014 and another two-thirds of an inning on the mound this season.
Also hurting his case – the time at DH has steadily increased – from 17 games in 2013 to 26 games in 2014 to 35 games this season. He has made the outfield look at times to be an adventure and he, from a statistical sense, is not the most rangy of players in the league.
Injuries too may have factored into that situation. He landed on the disabled list late in 2013 with a left Achilles strain and missed time last season with right wrist soreness. His season ended early that year after tearing the meniscus in his left knee. While he had no major injuries of note this season, he stepped to the plate eleven fewer times than last season, despite appearing in eight more games.
Because this discussion involves the small market, financially limited Indians roster, money has to be discussed.
Raburn has worth, as indicated above, but he does come with some risk. In order to maximize its value, Francona’s roster and, specifically his bench, needs to be versatile. Raburn has limited value defensively and against right-handed pitching, making him a corner outfielder/DH platoon piece at best. Over the last several seasons, the Indians had Murphy to slot in with him, but having two offense-first players filling one position left the bench hurting at times. At a $3 million price tag, a cheaper and more flexible bench piece (or pieces at that price) may be a more reasonable way for the Indians to spend their limited resources.
Coupled with the presence of Chris Johnson, who gives Francona a lighter-hitting corner infielder/DH option, and Lonnie Chisenhall, who surprised with his defensive play in his first foray in the outfield, Raburn’s days could be numbered.
His hopes would have to be that the Indians are willing to commit nearly $6 million to a Chisenhall-Raburn platoon in right. Younger, cheaper options, whether external or from Columbus, may be the more realistic way for Cleveland to go.
Lastly, there is that bizarre statistical anomaly that is “odd year Raburn”. Since his decline in Detroit, he has alternated good seasons with bad ones. His 14-homer, 49-RBI, .256 season in 2011 was followed by a one-homer, 12-RBI, .171 season in 2012. A .272 season with 16 homers and 55 RBI in 2013 was chased by a .200 average, four homers, and 22 RBI last season.
He hit .301 in 2015 with eight homers and 29 RBI. The ebbs and flows of his production would indicate he is due for another down year, if one were to believe in the recent historical trends.
It is hard to see the Indians tying up such a significant sum of money on a luxury that they just cannot afford. Raburn occupying a roster spot handcuffs Francona’s bench and, even in a platoon capacity, one has to question how much more he can provide a club needing to maximize the production from all 25 men on the roster.
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